An onlooker photographs a montage of the Kama Sutra. Photo: Getty
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Why I changed my mind about porn

A few years ago, I argued against the idea that porn was hijacking our sexuality. Now, as a women's centre tries to ban my opponent, I wonder - are they scared that if people listen to Gail Dines, their minds might be changed too?

“Isn’t Sarah Ditum the feminist who hates Gail Dines?”

I am Sarah Ditum the feminist. I do not hate Gail Dines, so I was a little taken aback to see this statement on a comment thread. I knew where it had come from, however: four years ago, Dines and I took part in a debate titled “Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality?” Dines, a veteran anti-porn feminist, argued for yes, and I put the case for no. In the end, I got the impression that we’d both slightly wrong-footed each other: I didn’t use the insinuations of sexlessness and prudery she’d anticipated, and her argument contained all the economic and ethical subtlety I’d foolishly assumed it would lack. The debate dragged out for over a year, then collapsed unsatisfyingly, and I wrote a grumpy blogpost about it which led lots of people (most of them, it has to be said, men) to declare me the winner.

I didn’t feel exactly like a winner, however. I knew that there were parts of the argument I’d fudged, especially (and shamefully) around the racism and sexism that are embedded in the grammar of pornography. I began to suspect that it was futile to criticise Dines’ use of cohort studies to demonstrate connections between porn use and misogynist attitudes – repeating over and over that there is no control group of men not exposed to the insistent chauvinism of pornography is, ultimately, not very convincing or reassuring. Though it seemed callow to admit it, I’d seen things in my research that shocked and upset me – real penetration of real women causing real pain. And there was one more thing, which happened more gradually: I heard from friends about the boyfriend who wanted to choke them, or the one who slapped them about in bed, or pressured them to do anal, or wanted to film it all. The pornographic vocabulary of sex as the violent debasement of the female body had seeped out from screens and into the lives of the women I knew.

Despite the official title of the debate, I’d been addressing a slightly different question all along: essentially, I was asking “Why should we be able to censor anything?” Dines had a different question too. Hers, paraphrased, was probably something like this: “Why should the pornographers be able to repackage and retail sexuality as violence?” Her answer is that they should not be able to, and her solution doesn’t involve censorship at all: as she explains in her documentary Pornland, it’s one of public education and grassroots resistance to the porn industry, enabling individuals to discover “a sexuality… that is life-loving, life-affirming, and that we ourselves authored, not the pornographers”. It is irrelevant here whether or not you find that hopeful prospectus plausible (and I do: if humans have any power at all, it is surely the power to shape our own culture). What matters is that it is a politics of invention, not repression.

In fact, rather than advocating for censorship, Dines has become the victim of it. On 21 February, a screening of Pornland organised by the group Decoding Porn should have taken place at the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas, Austin. It never happened, because the Community Center cancelled the booking on the now numbingly familiar yet nonetheless depressing grounds that it would violate a “safe space.” In a statement, the venue explained: “we had some folks here in the Austin community say they were deeply uncomfortable with Dines’ work. Our staff had not been aware of Dines’ history of anti-trans and anti-sex worker rhetoric, and we were grateful to be educated.” And gallingly, my part of the debate with Dines was used by the Center to support its decision. I had thought for a long time about whether to ask for it to be unpublished, and decided that the embarrassment of having my mistakes on show was better than the dishonesty of redacting. I hadn’t considered that by not censoring myself, I might give occasion to someone else’s silencing.

Dines firmly rejects the Center’s claims: “I am critical of the johns,  the pimps and the porn producers and distributors, but not the women who end up in the industry through poverty, racism, violence and trafficking,” she says. “It is like calling Marx capitalist-phobic and refusing to engage with his arguments about the nature of economic exploitation. Also, I have never ever said anything that could be considered hateful of trans people… I am president of Stop Porn Culture and we welcome anyone who has a feminist anti-porn position.” Nevertheless, the smear had done its job: Austin had lost its opportunity to watch Pornland and respond to the arguments on their merits. If the person staking a position is deemed unspeakable, no answer is required. The safe space of the Center must be purged of dissent; meanwhile, none of its employees seemed to wonder whether an industry in which women are called “bitches” and “sluts” and ritually pummelled for men’s entertainment can be any kind of “safe space”.

There’s a tendency for the liberal left – particularly men of the liberal left – to see the shutting down of radical feminist speakers as a punishment of deliciously Dantean aptness. Meanie feminists tried to take away the porn, and now the meanie feminists have been played at their own game and beaten. But feminists have rarely demanded that the pornographic material they criticise be banned. No More Page 3 asked The Sun’s editor to reconsider an antiquated, embarrassing part of the newspaper. Lose the Lads’ Mags suggested that, maybe, boob-baring models were not the thing to have smiling down from supermarket shelves. Had Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon’s 1988 Porn Ordinance been adopted, pornography would have been redefined as sex discrimination and women who could demonstrate that they had been harmed by it would have been able to sue the makers for damages. All this is very different to the claim that a feminist critique of pornography should not be shown in a women’s centre because some folks have alleged that the maker has said some things not even contained in the film.

Even when it came to destructive direct action, anti-porn feminists could be scrupulous about preserving their opponents’ “speech”. In 1980, artist Nikki Craft destroyed a set of photos called The Incredible Case of the Stack O' Wheat Murders in the University of California Santa Cruz Special Collections Library. These sepiatone pictures all featured a naked woman, posed as though murdered, in the middle of a staged crime scene. Next to each beautiful corpse was set a stack of whole wheat pancakes, like the signature of a whimsical serial killer; for blood, the photographer substituted graphic pools of chocolate syrup. And each set came with a packet of pancake mix and a can of chocolate syrup – the supposedly witty implication being that the purchaser now has the materials to create his (of course his) own crime scene. Just add murdered woman. Craft brilliantly turned this violence back on the prints, tearing them up and dousing them with the syrup. She also, at her own expense, purchased a replacement set for the library. The protest was made, and nothing was lost.

The actions of Craft, Dworkin, Mackinnon and Dines are defined by their urgency. Anti-porn feminism recognises a link between the propaganda of sexual violence and its practice, and stopping porn is understood to be essential in ending the rapes, killings and torture that men practice against women. These campaigners believe that lives are at stake – and even so, they are somehow less censorious, more open to dialogue, more creative than those who now police the “safe spaces.”  In these spaces, everyone must be warmly welcomed and intellectually unchallenged, except of course for feminists speaking against male violence. One wonders exactly why Pornland was such an intimidating prospect for supporters of the sex industry in Austin. Perhaps it is a perverse testament to Dines: maybe her opponents know that, if viewers approach with a readiness to debate in good faith, they might, like me, end up changing their minds.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.